Clippings: Nursing a memory to mow a lawn

The birds are chirping up a storm. The lilacs are in bloom. The convertibles are out. The calendar says it’s May. But it really isn’t spring until I bust out the ol’ Gravely.
Gravely, as any self-respecting yard-maintenance junkie knows, is a brand of lawn tractor. And at the risk of sounding like I have a stake in the company (I don’t), this particular Gravely has more value to me than its simple function of cutting grass.
At 31 years old (and counting), I consider this lawn tractor to be a moving — albeit a very slow moving — tribute to its previous owner: My late grandfather Max.
He bought it when I was 19, a freshman in college. I was at his house in Maine when the beast was delivered. Sleek, virtually every inch of it metal, coated in bright red paint. It has an 8-horsepower Kohler engine with dual tires and a 42-inch detachable mowing deck that you can switch off for a snow blower, plow and maybe even a medieval battering ram if you can find one.
It was Max’s second Gravely; the first one — an early 1960s model — probably saw more duty towing my brother and myself around in a metal cart attachment than it did cutting grass.
At 31, the Gravely is more than 10 years older than both of our children, and nine years older than my marriage (don’t worry, Dottie and our young people don’t play second fiddle to a lawn tractor).
The basic Gravely has handles that the driver uses to steer the machine while walking behind it. Well, Max wanted all the bells and whistles. He installed a steering wheel and a sulky attachment so that he could ride along and mow his three acres of lawn well into his 80s. As he got older and more frail, he still got a charge out of mowing his lawn. It made him feel independent.
Some of my most enduring memories of Max will be as he whirled around that expanse of green on his Gravely, mowing between the many tree stumps, large rocks, gardens and bird feeders that adorned his busy but beautiful yard.
He begrudgingly ceded the mowing chore to me as he approached 90. I almost expected to hear trumpets sound when Max passed along the key to the Gravely, along with the maintenance manual that he stressed should be followed meticulously. The man logged the number of hours he ran the machine down to the minute, for crying out loud.
He also insisted on giving me — at this point in my mid-20s — a primer on how to operate the Gravely. Never mind that it was as simple as turning the ignition and using one lever to go forward and another to go backward.
I must admit, there were very few safety tips in the manual.
A graphic, cartoonish picture of a blade slicing through the middle of a foot is featured prominently on the mowing deck, imparting a message that even a Neanderthal can understand. Other than that, you’re pretty much on your own. You can mow in reverse, and leave it idling with the mower on. You’re credited with having enough common sense not to leave it unattended on a slope above a playground.
When Max moved in with us 10 years ago, he kept the Gravely at his house in Maine. I would make the trek to his house every three or four weeks to give his lawn a haircut and check on things. I was able to memorize the undulating contours of the landscape, avoiding half-submerged rocks and other blade pitfalls.
When Max died eight years ago, we had no choice but to sell his home, but we brought back to Vermont some of his cherished possessions — including his Gravely. While we have a peppier lawn tractor to do the bulk of the mowing on our two acres, I still fire up the Gravely every year to do the heavy lifting on denser growth around trees and along the property line.
The Gravely has its share of battle scars, including a few dings, plenty of scratches and the use of wires in strategic places to keep the mowing deck stable. It belches enough smoke to place it on the EPA’s most-wanted list. My brother-in-law Peeker, a genius with a blowtorch, has graciously welded the sulky frame twice as it has succumbed to the girth of its riders over time. And I thought I had my weight in check…
Thanks to Max’s tutelage and quite frankly a lot of luck (knock wood), the Gravely has continued to fire up every spring. And as I take it out for some limited duty on a warm summer day, I know Max is somewhere up there smiling in his blue-jean overalls and straw hat, happy that he passed me the key.

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